Issue #217 August/September 2006
By Renee Brooks Catacalos and Kristi Bahrenburg Janzen
Amid increasing media buzz about the virtues of local food, we set out to discover how feasible it is to eat only local food all the time. As two suburban moms, we wanted to know if “eat local” was just a hollow marketing slogan or a real alternative for families who hope to enjoy the best seasonal foods, invest in the local economy and help the environment. How much would it cost? Would the kids go for it? Would our guests appreciate it?
Pledging to forage locally for a month, we defined “local” as grown and produced within a 150-mile radius of our homes in a Maryland suburb of Washington, DC. We knew there were agricultural riches in our region. Yet much of what we discovered – or failed to discover – surprised us.
Enjoying Local Produce
Our own small gardens, and those of friends and family, were our start. They yielded zesty nasturtium blossoms for salads, hot chile peppers, edamame, sweet cucumbers, herbs and other special produce. Renee’s father had enough collards in his backyard to supply her all year. But, to feed our families of four, we needed a lot more.
We quickly became regulars at four producer-only farmers markets near our homes, where we picked up traditional favorites like corn on the cob, carrots bursting with flavor, mesclun greens, and various melons and berries. Kristi, eight months pregnant with her third child at the time, enjoyed the added convenience of weekly home delivery from two community supported agriculture farms (CSAs).
By shopping at the farmers markets, we began to make new observations about our food. The taste of local tree fruits was particularly striking. While they are typically grown using some pesticides due to the humid mid-Atlantic climate, the flavor was far superior to any shipped from across the country, organic or not. Kristi couldn’t stop craving local award-winning peaches and cream. The kids reveled in the fruit too, tasting new varieties like metheny and cardinal plums. Renee’s husband, Damon, especially enjoyed the long run of fresh apricots.
Rounding Up Meat, Fish and Dairy
We also tapped directly into the farming community. Kristi ordered Amish organic meat, dairy, produce and other items like maple syrup through a buying club with a biweekly delivery 30 minutes from home. Renee was in the habit of taking her family on bimonthly field trips to Springfield Farm in Sparks, Maryland, a one-stop shop of sorts, selling grass-fed beef and lamb, pastured pork, chicken, and rabbits, and fresh free-range eggs.
Sometimes, we turned to various co-ops and health food stores, although no single shop carried all the local goods we wanted. Between them, however, we found many dairy products – both cows’ and goats’, both certified organic and conventional -- from dairies in Maryland and Pennsylvania. They also carried some local eggs, fruits, vegetables, honey, maple syrup, and a little meat. We were pleased to find that our local conventional grocery stores offered some locally grown produce as well.
The Chesapeake Bay region is well-known for its seafood, but we didn’t eat much of it during our experiment. Iconic products like blue crab and rockfish were simply too scarce and expensive. Renee had the occasional treat of a fresh croaker or two, a less famous but delicious regional fish, caught by her uncle, an avid sport-fisher. Through her CSA, Kristi received some wild-caught Alaskan salmon, hardly local, but environmentally friendly.
Facing an Involuntary No-Carbs Diet
The major challenges arose when we tried to find sources for pantry staples like flour, rice, corn meal, oats, barley, cereal, lentils, dried beans, nuts and dried fruit, as well as pasta and bread. Kristi did not eat wheat while pregnant, and was hoping to find spelt or rye.
Wheat required a three-hour round trip for a rendezvous with Western Maryland farmer Rick Hood who sold Renee a whole 10 pounds of wheat for just $2.50. We were stunned to find no commercial mills in Maryland grinding the millions of bushels of wheat and corn grown annually in the state. “The milling facilities in Maryland have died,” Hood said.
With the help of a small kitchen grinder, Renee experienced the pleasure of baking with freshly ground wheat, although it required a lot of cleaning before grinding. She was relieved to eventually find Wade’s Mill in Raphine,Virginia via the internet. Millers Jim and Georgie Young stone-grind Virginia hard and soft wheat and happily fill mail orders with their old-fashioned twine-tied bags of flour. The only way to get local cornmeal was to drive to the tiny town of Westminster near the Pennsylvania border, where volunteers grind local corn at the historic water-powered Union Mills grist mill and sell it for $3 a bag.
Kristi was able to locate certified organic whole spelt, and whole rye flour grown without pesticides, both from Small Valley Milling in Halifax, Pennsylvania. The spelt was also ground and hulled locally. “I probably have the only dehulling facility in Pennsylvania,” said farmer and mill owner Joel Steigman, who knows farmers who send their spelt to Michigan for dehulling.
We were, however, unable to find any bakers using local grains. When Kristi asked one bakery representative where their grains came from, he replied with a baffled, “Is that a trick question?” As a result, Kristi supplemented with breads that were at least locally baked and Renee stuck to her homemade bread.
Maryland’s Eastern Shore yielded pecans from 100-year old trees at the Nuts to You farm, available every week at our local farmers market, as well as hybrid chestnuts from Delmarvelous Chestnuts, available by mail. Ground into flour, chestnuts pack a nutritional wallop and contribute to savory dishes like nutty-tasting crepes. Ordering nine jars of Virginia peanut butter online from The Peanut Shop of Williamsburg was probably the easiest purchase of the whole month.
As for legumes, we got them fresh all summer – edamame, crowder and black-eyed peas, baby lima and fava beans. Shelling the peas made the more finicky kids willing to at least give them a try. But we were told by more than one person in the know that the mid-Atlantic climate is not favorable for producing dried beans. And we were unable to find anybody offering the “grain, bean and seed” CSAs that we hear are available in some parts of the country.
We never felt deprived by cutting out tropical fruits, frozen convenience foods or typical snacks. The kids whined about their loss of cereal and pasta the first week, but as time went by, they got into the experiment (Laura Ingalls Wilder analogies helped!). They loved the open-pollinated Amish popcorn, and homemade potato and sweet potato chips. To satisfy their craving for sweets, Renee made peanut butter cookies using maple sugar, while Kristi baked cookies with whole spelt flour and pecans.
We did spend more time than usual in food preparation, including some experimental baking. Renee made “graham nuts” cereal using a recipe off the internet in response to her five-year-old’s plea for cereal during the last week. Kristi’s week-long experiment making sourdough rye only yielded two edible loaves, but piqued her interest in preparing the dark rye of her northern German ancestors.
Baking required us to make an exception to the 150-mile rule for leavening agents. We also granted ourselves additional exceptions, such as for oil and vinegar, salt and pepper, and tea. Kristi’s husband, Bernd, couldn’t do without coffee. Forgoing treats like refined sugar, chocolate and spices was difficult. But we earned a profound new appreciation for globally-traded flavor enhancers!
Wild Price Ranges and Hidden Costs
Price comparisons revealed that no one store was cheaper across the board. Price ranges of local foods were startlingly wide, and defied stereotypes. Whole Foods – known in some quarters as “Whole Paycheck” – actually yielded some relative bargains, while the smaller health food stores, food co-ops and farmers markets offered both bargains and sticker shocks.
To keep from busting our budgets, we watched for sales, and limited the high-end gourmet stuff, such as artisanal cheese. By being a neighborhood CSA coordinator, Kristi received her share of vegetables for free. We also made bulk purchases and grabbed seconds. Nob Hill Orchards, of Gerrardstown, West Virginia, for example, sells bulk berries at a discount, albeit frozen. Overripe peaches bought at half price from Harris Orchard, of Lothian, MD, made a fabulous crumble, and a half bushel of apple seconds for a mere $6 made quarts of fantastic applesauce.
Bulk discounts are especially valuable in purchasing meat. At Springfield Farm, rib eye steaks are $18 a pound and ground beef is $4 a pound, but Renee bought a 20-pound box of mixed roasts, steaks and ground meat for $3.95 a pound. Whole steers, sides or split quarters are as low as $2.50 a pound. “It really is a very good buy for people if they have the freezer space,” said Valerie Lafferty, who runs the farm with her parents, David and Lilly Smith.
We intended to conserve fossil fuels by limiting the distance our food traveled to reach our tables. However, because the distribution system for local food is neither extensive nor coordinated, we did make lots of extra trips to pick up items from various suppliers. This was somewhat at odds with our intent, and we had to take the cost of gas into consideration.
At times, even though we paid a higher price for local food, we considered it a bargain. This was in part because the quality and flavor were so much better. But we also felt it worth paying more to help preserve small family farms and support locals who minimize environmental damage.
Putting It All Together
Eating locally allowed us to see the unique culinary possibilities of our region, and taught us to stay creative and flexible in the kitchen. Sometimes, the vendor we were counting on didn’t show up. Sometimes, supplies just ran out, or the weather brought crops to a premature end. Early on we learned not to get frustrated, but let available foods lead the way.
In the process, we came to love the simple pleasures of seeing the kids eat three plums for a snack instead of cheese curls and making toasted cheese sandwiches with local cheddar on homemade bread. We also relished bringing gourmet meals to the table from our local bounty.
Kristi’s French beef stew using Amish meat, her own herbs, local red wine and bacon from Cibola Farms was the star of a dinner that included cabbage and tomato salad, and spaghetti squash sauteed in butter, garlic and onions. Family visiting from Montana enjoyed local breakfasts including French toast made with goats’ milk and butter, and spelt pancakes.
One of the favorites at Renee’s house was her sausage ragout, made with sweet Italian or rosemary-garlic-lamb sausage, fresh tomatoes, sweet corn right off the cob, and whatever fresh pea or bean was in season. Real old-fashioned buttermilk became, and remains, a staple in her house for pancakes, scones and cornbread.
At our end-of-experiment feast, everyone gobbled up award-winning goat cheeses from FireFly Farms, of Bittinger, Maryland, while sampling a variety of local wines, and beer from Franklin’s, a microbrewery just down the road from our homes. Dragon tongue beans, red peppers, shitake mushrooms, herbs and pastured chicken thrown in a big pot produced a great stew. Blue potatoes, on discount at a local co-op, slathered in garlic and roasted, were a big hit with the kids.
Now that our one-month test is over, we’ve gone back to a few non-local items, like bananas and store-bought pasta. But we’ve retained a lot of our new habits, too. Once you get used to farm-fresh food, regular store-bought fare tastes remarkably bland. We’re aiming to get more freezer space and planning to preserve more. We are really excited about the delicious fresh grain and bread-baking prospects too.
Perhaps even more gratifying, we’ve sparked conversations with local farmers and retailers about expanding the availability of local foods, and introducing new products, such as bread baked with local flour. As we’ve turned many of our friends, relatives and neighbors onto local food, we hope to see it become less of an adventure in foraging and more of an accessible choice for everyday eating.
Nearly a year after our all-or-nothing experiment, both our families still rely heavily on our local foodshed. We don't deny ourselves the pleasure of tropical fruits or fair trade coffee, but we buy local first and definitely purchase more local items than we used to.
The more we discuss local food, the more suppliers we discover. A conversation with the general manager of a neighborhood natural foods co-op, for example, resulted in higher-profile labeling of local products in the store. The bright yellow star that signifies "locally made" has led us to amazing discoveries, like tofu made from organic Virginia soybeans.
We've also found the general interest in local food to be widespread and growing. As many friends and neighbors continued to ask about our experiment, we recently hosted a neighborhood information session to share our months of research on local food. Thrilled to see more than 40 people attend, we quickly ran out of the 6 quarts of pick-your-own organic blueberries we offered as a snack, along with Virginia peanut butter and homemade wild yeast sourdough bread. Folks were not only interested in our food sources, but also wanted to hear how our children and husbands reacted to the local food, what our motivation was, and how we made it convenient and affordable.
We truly believe the more consumers seek local food, the more farmers will find it a viable economic opportunity, strengthening our local food system, local businesses and communities all at the same time.